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Feminist Community Research: Case Studies and Methodologies

By Gillian Creese and Wendy Frisby, Editors

March 18, 2014

Review By Jo-Anne Lee

The aim of this collection of ten essays and an introductory and concluding chapter is to reveal tensions, challenges, pitfalls, complexities, and strategies in working within feminist community based research (FCR) approaches. The contributors come from a variety of academic disciplines and backgrounds, but they all have been associated with Women’s and Gender Studies at UBC. Given the authors’ specific intellectual lineage within women and gender studies, and their aim of talking transparently about FCR as actually practiced, to get the most out of this collection readers should have some familiarity with broader discussions in feminist research and methodologies. The editors assume readers’ familiarity with feminist debates around questions of reflexivity, transparency, voice, objectivity, agency, and power.

This is not a text for the absolute beginner researcher. Ideal readers are those who have actually tried or who would like to try FCR-related research, or those who need to evaluate or judge FCR projects. The book would be useful in a graduate research methods course where the emphasis is on feminist, alternative, and/or community engaged research. Its main contribution is in debunking the often-romanticized belief that research approaches, such as FCR, that involve “community partners” are a panacea for the harm that traditional research approaches have caused and continue to cause. The editors explain that their aims in bringing these essays together included “analyzing rather than glossing over what went well, as well as what did not; in sharing the lessons learned so that others might benefit from our successes and our mistakes; and in considering the consequences of negotiating contested relationships for all those involved” (2).

Contributors tackle a wide range of ethical, methodological, and theoretical concerns. Substantively, the chapters deal with diverse social problems such as community capacity building, health, international development, caregiving, poverty, and immigration. The authors employ different research methods and reflect distinct theoretical, disciplinary, and philosophical traditions.

Overall, the empirical chapters and the final concluding chapter provide a wealth of material for discussions of relations of power enacted in research relationships. Some of the chapters are written by or include the voices of members of marginalized communities including formerly incarcerated women, Aboriginal women, peer outreach sex workers, women from rural communities, and recent immigrants. Their inclusion demonstrates the book’s commitment to feminist principles in research. For example, in Chapter 5, “Voices from the Street: Sex Workers’ Experiences in Community-Based HIV Research,” Chettiar, Tyndall, Chan, Parsad, Gibson, and Shannon discuss the active involvement of sex workers in designing, implementing, and communicating the research project as peer partners alongside traditional research actors. However, the authors go beyond praising this involvement to critically reflecting on assumptions in the term “peer” in research accounts. In this particular study, peer researchers redefined the term. In the context of this community, a peer was someone who had experiential knowledge of sex work. Another example of this commitment is in the book’s preface, which details a collaborative writing process developed over several months. The result is a collection of essays with strong coherence and linkages across chapters.

Several chapters draw on research with members of First Nations communities in Vancouver and other areas of British Columbia. For example, Chapter 5 reflects on research with sex workers in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood; Chapter 8 discusses lone mothers; Chapter 9 examines caregiving in a First Nations community in the Fraser Valley; Chapter 10 interrogates Aboriginal women as inmates in prison research; and Chapter 12 thinks critically about power relations within the often promoted discourse of capacity building in maternal health research conducted with Aboriginal women from Alert Bay, Bella Coola, Old Masset, and Skidegate. Other chapters address the concerns of immigrant women, and a chapter by Anderson, Khan, and Reimer-Kirkham reflects on health research in Canada and India by attending to the unavoidable, larger systemic contexts that frame the academic feminist research project.  Anderson, Khan, and Reimer-Kirkham argue for the applicability of post-colonial theory to transnational FCR. Not all essays directly address the institutional, historical, and material legacy of colonization, although it certainly shaped the contexts for their research. Here, editors and authors could have delved more systematically into how, when, where, and under what conditions FCR can be decolonizing and anti-racist. Although the editors are careful to note that FCR does not stand outside of larger colonizing knowledge production practices, especially when used in collaboration with marginalized communities, exactly what aspects and how FCR is decolonizing were not fully explicated. Indeed, authors who address the need to take up questions of colonization and decolonization (Anderson et al. and Varcoe et al.) tended to restrict the term decolonization to knowledge production practices, rather than decolonizing nation, territory, and land — a broader and potentially more disruptive application.

The concluding chapter distills important points taken from all essays, including: staying alert to institutional, historical, and material contexts that mediate research projects; practicing early and ongoing collaboration with community research partners; avoiding monolithic and homogenizing views of “the community;” negotiating with institutional gatekeepers on behalf of community partners in areas such as funding arrangements and institutional ethics review processes; staying personally self-reflexive about one’s own shifting positionality in relations of power; and explicitly acknowledging and negotiating around institutional constraints. In recognizing that all research has the potential for disrupting settled ways of thinking and doing, this useful text on FCR also offers critical tools for readers working on social policy, social change, and social justice agendas.

Feminist Community Research: Case Studies and Methodologies
Gillian Creese and Wendy Frisby, editors
Vancouver: UBC Press: 2012. 228 pp. $32.95 paper